Hiking to Colchuck Lake | Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a hiker’s paradise located in the state of Washington, about 2.5 hours east of Seattle. It is a place that has particularly hit my radar of late as I began to read more about the famous Enchantments region of the wilderness. This year, I applied for one of the incredibly rare permits to backpack in the Enchantments, but unfortunately, as with so many others, my bid was unsuccessful. Undeterred, I quickly moved on to plan B, which was a day hike to the edge of the Enchantments, and another popular destination: Colchuck Lake.
Colchuck Lake: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 3,410 ft.
Distance: 9.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,631 ft.
Hike Type: Out and back, day-hike
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Permit: Day-hiking requires a self-issued permit accessible at the trailhead
Crowd Factor: High! This is one of the most popular hikes in Washington, so don’t expect much solitude. Visiting on a weekday in early October, the trail wasn’t very busy for us.
Date Hiked: October 3, 2019
Colchuck Lake: Getting to the Trailhead
From Seattle, take WA 522-E to US2-E which will drop you into the small, Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth. This is a good place to get gas and any last minute snacks before continuing Icicle Creek Road and then Forest Service Road-7601 that leads to the Stuart Lake trail. If you’re not backpacking or camping in the area, Leavenworth and nearby Wenatchee (where we stayed) have some good lodging and dining options.
Important Note: The Forest Service road is 3.7 miles long, unpaved, and generally VERY bumpy, so be prepared. We rented an SUV knowing that the road was not going to be great, and were happy we did so. We read reports that people will make the drive in regular passenger cars, but our advice for whatever you drive is to take it slow! Be sure to pay attention to the “no parking” signs that mark the side of the road, as there are only between 20-30 parking spots at the trail head and some are reserved for overnight hikers. You must self-issue your permit and place it on the outside of your pack before heading out on the trail. Lastly, a Northwest Forest Recreation Day ($5)/Annual Pass ($30) is required for your vehicle, or you can use your America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass as we did. For more information on, check out the Washington Trail Association website.
Hiking to Colchuck Lake
The hike begins at the Stuart Lake trailhead (no. 1599) and dives right into the forest. For the first 1.7 miles, the hike is relatively easy with rolling hills and about 600 feet of elevation.
Here we crossed our first bridge and the trail starts to climb. In the next mile, we gained another 600 feet before we reached the junction for Colchuck Lake. We stayed left here, and then quickly met our second bridge of the day, a bit more rugged looking than the first.
Immediately following the bridge crossing, we were greeted by a boulder field to navigate through. Before long, we saw our first snow of the day, which had was scattered in places on the trail. I had forgotten that the area had received a storm a few days earlier, which meant some of the next part of the trail was icy. A good reminder to us that even as experienced hikers, it’s important to remember the basics like checking the recent weather in addition to current weather.
At 4.5 miles, the trail opened up and the views of the surrounding mountains were beautiful. We stopped for a few minutes here and enjoyed the sweeping views. For a fall hike, there were plenty of signs that winter was already on its way.
We finally reached Colchuck Lake just past 5 miles, and were greeted by Dragontail Peak and Aasgard Pass with a fresh dusting of snow. Thanks to the clouds hovering over the area, the lake was a dark blue, and a light wind meant there were no perfect reflections.
It was a bit rocky trying to get down to the lakeshore, but we managed to find a good route that was free of snow. We didn’t end up explore too much further around the lake since we had neglected to bring our microspikes and there was snow/ice on the trail.
With a storm rolling in, we decided to head out after only about an hour and half at the lake. Indeed we made a good call as about a mile into our descent, we were treated to a light mix of snow and rain. The remainder of the hike was a steady rain which encouraged us to move a bit more quickly, also wanting to get back down to the car before dark. Finally back at the car, we threw our gear into the rental and made our way down the bumpy forest road.
Final Thoughts on Colchuck Lake
If you’re looking to experience some of the beauty of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, we definitely recommend a trip to Colchuck Lake! It is simply a stunning area and the lake is well worth all the effort it takes to reach it. We can’t wait to get back to Washington and explore more of this area!
For more Washington inspiration, check out these posts:
Shop our favorite gear for this adventure: